Proponents of supervised injection sites urge Minneapolis to consider idea

Supporters of safe injection sites say they not only prevent people from dying from overdoses, but they also reduce the transmission of diseases commonly spread by unclean needles. There are no such sanctioned supervised injection sites in the U.S., but facilities in other countries provide clean needles, medical staff and treatment resources.

It is an option that city council member Jeremiah Ellison wants the city to take a serious look at.

"When I've been mentioning this the last couple weeks I feel like I've had a handful of people look at me like I'm pro-heroin," said Ellison during a council committee meeting Wednesday. " And I don't think that that's the goal. The goal is that this could be a prerequisite to treatment."

Ellison spoke during a discussion about how and where the city can temporarily relocate hundreds of people living in tents in south Minneapolis. City officials are concerned about sanitary and safety conditions at the camp. And they say disposal containers were needed in order to protect people from coming into contact with used needles.

At the same meeting the city health commissioner Gretchen Musicant briefed the committee on an analysis of supervised injection sites that pooled data from multiple studies.

The research showed such facilities had "a small, positive effect on outcomes," said Musicant, adding that the data is based on sites located in other countries.

Musicant says she expects the Mayor's Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force on Opioids to address the feasibility of safe injection sites when it produces a set of recommendations next year.

One of the members of the task force says establishing a place for people to safely inject drugs is a good idea.

"In fact, the American Medical Association thinks it's a good idea to, at the very least, pilot this," said Dr. Gavin Bart, head of the addiction medicine division at Hennepin Healthcare. He is also an associate professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Bart said people should think of these facilities as tool that can help prevent overdose deaths in homeless drug users who might otherwise seek out secluded spots to shoot up, where no one is around to help them.

He noted there's also evidence to show that people are getting help with their addiction in these injection centers. Cities such as Vancouver, Canada have reported positive results.

"When places like Vancouver looked at the people who were using these facilities, they actually found there was an uptick — about 30 to 60 percent of the population who used these facilities — ended up either going into treatment or initiating some kind of a detox program," said Bart.

Law enforcement officials in some cities appear to have accepted the injection sites, said Bart. He described a center in Zurich located in the same building as a police station.

However, in the U.S., federal law enforcement officials have vowed to crack down on any site that allows the use of illegal drugs.

"Because federal law clearly prohibits injection sites, cities and counties should expect the Department of Justice to meet the opening of any injection site with swift and aggressive action," wrote deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein in an op-ed published last month in the New York Times.

Rosenstein also said the best way to combat the opioid crisis is through treatment and restricting access to drugs, not through "normalizing drug use."

Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo was unavailable to comment for this story. Instead the department issued a statement that said, "Although we do recognize the opioid crisis that exists across the country, there is not enough information on this matter for us to make any decisions at this point."

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who has made opioid overdose prevention one of his highest priorities, does NOT support injection sites.

"Sheriffs are not in the business of picking and choosing which crimes to enforce," said Stanek. "I believe the compassionate approach is to provide more treatment alternatives to those who are addicted."

It doesn't appear that Minneapolis city leaders will take any action towards creating safe injection sites any time soon.

Finding emergency shelter space for people in the camp is their first priority. City council members expect to see plans for the shelters next week.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.